Posted by: Ciaran | May 19, 2010

In praise of the Press Complaints Commission

Yet again the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has come under fire today as it published its annual review for 2009, showing a seven-fold increase in the number of complaints made – largely due to the furore over Jan Moir’s article about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately last year.

PCC chair Baroness Buscombe had to deny further criticisms that the commission is “toothless” after just 18 public adjudications were made in 12 months, a decrease of six from the year before.

Defending the decision not to censure the Daily Mail over Moir’s article – which prompted more than 25,000 complaints – Baroness Buscombe said: “In the end, the commission considered that newspapers had the right to publish opinions that many might find unpalatable and offensive, and that it would not be proportionate, in this case, to rule against the free expression of the columnist’s views on a subject that was the focus of intense public attention.

“This was a difficult decision to make but I believe we made the right one.”

Whatever the merits of that individual decision, the PCC is often criticised for being too close to the media industry and lacking in effective powers to sanction newspapers.

But much of the PCC’s good work goes unnoticed, and many people seem to have expectations above and beyond the scope of its actual powers.

The Press standards, privacy and libel report by the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee in February slammed the PCC for its handling of the reporting of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and its inquiries in to the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

The report also slated the PCC because it is funded by the newspapers and magazines which it is supposed to regulate and because there are a number of industry experts – particularly newspaper editors – within its structure, especially at senior level.

But how else is it to be funded? The committee itself said it did not want to see a statutory complaints body introduced, and that seems highly unlikely anyway after David Cameron pledged last year to cut back broadcast regulator Ofcom.

“Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist,” he promised.

The fact that newspapers and magazines pay their subscriptions in order to be covered by the PCC show that self-regulation can work: the committee said the fact membership was not obligatory was a failure of the PCC, but this would only be true if organisations were not signing up to be bound by the Code of Practice.

Clearly the press is in need of some sort of regulatory shake-up to combat what the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report called “worryingly low” levels of public trust in newspapers – something borne out in yesterday’s report from Ofcom which said just 34 per cent of people trusted the news they read in papers.

But swingeing changes to the PCC could mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Reform is needed, but in a gradual and considered way, taking forward the building blocks which are already there.

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